All posts by Christian Sauvé

The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Spanish Prisoner</strong> (1997)

(In theaters, May 1998) After the usual “fun but dumb” thrill left by most movies, it’s refreshing to see a movie that let you use your mind at full gear throughout its running time. Unfortunately, The Spanish Prisoner isn’t half as smart as it would want us to believe… but we almost have to feel grateful for the attempt. This multiple-twists story is about an inventor who suddenly finds his life much more “interesting” after he invents a substantially profitable industrial process. He make friends, who might or might not be friends, and his company now might or might not want to give him full recognition. But don’t worry; as in The Usual Suspects, everything you think you know is wrong. The problem with tightly-plotted movies of this type is that they run the very real risk of being too complicated for their own good. And that’s exactly the problem of The Spanish Prisoner: Upon careful examination, several parts of the intricately crafted plot fall apart. Simply put, the chain of event in the movie could only have happened in a movie. Characters have to make dumb decisions, and commit even dumber acts. The movie simply rings false, an impression compounded by the unlikely dialogue. And of course, once you finally realize that this is the kind of twisty-turvy movie where no one is who s/he appears to be, you can safely predict the course of the plot by using inverse logic. Still, the acting’s good (especially Steve Martin, if you can believe it), the plot is entertaining and even though the plot is in its own way as preposterous as Godzilla‘s, at least it’s an intellectually ambitious failure. Definitely worth a video rental.

Watch the Skies! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth, Curtis Peebles

Berkley, 1994, 420 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-15117-4

If you think even slightly like me, you must despair at the new age section of your favorite bookstore: Whole shelves full of astrology, angels, self-help parapsychology, meditation, crystals and -last but not least-, UFOs, extra-terrestrials and flying saucers. It still heartens me to see that at the nearest Chapters, these black/green/purple books are located right besides the comic book section. (Even though it’s really embarrassing when I browse the graphic novels shelves.)

Given the flood of easy cash (“a fool and his money are soon parted”) coming from the whole UFO craze, it’s hard to find good, accurate, complete and convincing sources chronicling this modern superstition. The “Skeptical Enquirer” magazine is good, but patchy due to its periodical nature (and not available everywhere). Watch the Skies has the advantage of debunking everything UFO in a single handy package.

The whole UFO business begins in 1947, when pilot Kenneth Arnold spots “peculiar saucer-shaped aircrafts flying in a line at incredible speed.” Over the years, Peebles shows the reader how the UFO myth was shaped by fringe notions (Did you know that “contactees” were once rejected by the “mainstream” UFO mindset?), pop culture events (from the pulp magazines to the classic movie THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL to… well, Peebles stops just before “The X-Files”) but mostly wishful thinking transforming perfectly explainable events in “weird, strange, mysterious” happenings.

And, most importantly for this kind of book, Peebles is convincing. Paradoxically, his credibility is strengthened by the fact that he doesn’t try to explain everything in a definitive manner. What can be explained is explained, and the remainder isn’t. But most of the classical elements of the UFO mythos -familiar to most laypersons- are explained away. The explanations ring true. This is about as even-handed as a skeptical book will get, and it’s immensely satisfying.

Also revealing are the various hoaxes that taint the UFO scene ever since if was created. How major pro-UFO figures were persons with a lot to gain, financially speaking, from the continued existence of the myth. How others had histories of troubled psychological pasts. How others purely manufactured events and documents to gain fame, money and/or popularity. The much-lauded MJ-12 documents are here completely destroyed by meticulous comparisons of these documents with contemporary official documents recently declassified. The Bermuda Triangle (remember that?) is also debunked. The famous cattle mutilation cases are also explained away and I, as an ex-farmboy who’s had to deal with his share of dead cows, agrees with Peebles that there’s no mystery to them!

A disquieting fact about the UFO myth is how it has transformed through the year from a simple “unexplained sightings” theory to a grab-all abduction / UFO / cover-up / secret pact / alien experiments conspiracy, much more sinister and much more dangerous that it ever was in the past. A myth must evolve and become steadily more exciting, or else it becomes quaint and passé. Glancing at the UFO shelves at the bookstore, I wonder how much more time this shameless commercial exploitation can continue…

Watch the Skies! is exceedingly well-researched, with almost fifty pages of end notes. A lot of the source documents are from official documents; others are the pro-UFO books themselves. A pretty good index completes the book, although there are regrettably no pictures.

The biggest surprise of Watch the Skies! is how entertaining it is. While scholarly, Peebles’s account is also compulsively readable. While I was looking forward to parts of this book as much as my next dentist appointment, I was pleasantly entertained by most of the book. It is also sufficiently accessible for anyone, regardless of scientific or skeptical background.

Ultimately, it’s obvious that Watch the Skies! probably won’t convert true believers into skeptics. As Peebles says, UFOs become a subject of fanatical, almost religious zeal: Reasoning becomes irrelevant. But Watch the Skies! is a significant book, because it takes a hard look at the whole UFO hysteria in a carefully thoughtful manner. A must-read for sceptics and should-read for everyone else.

Godzilla (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Godzilla</strong> (1998)

(In theaters, May 1998) First things first: Godzilla stinks. The dialogue is beyond horrendous and well into inanity, the story has gaping holes, the pacing could -should!- have been improved, the characters aren’t very interesting and the attempts at “humor” are embarrassing to watch. (Especially the awful “Siskel and Ebert” bits.) In retrospect, Godzilla stands as a particularly irresponsible waste of good money and even better talent on a more than sub-standard script. If only someone with any storytelling sense had rewritten this script in the vein of Moby Dick, then we could have had a killer movie to watch. Alas… But, to paraphrase Spice World, it was quite entertaining without actually being any good. The setup is intriguing. Some of the set-pieces are a lot of fun to watch. Jean Reno is a delight (but then again, he speaks French most of the movie, which is huge plus for my French-Canadian ears.) The ending car chase is pretty spiffy and the final battle against Godzilla is spectacular. In the meantime, most of New York’s landmarks get trashed quite thoroughly and we get to see some pretty special effects. (It’s a shame that they had to use darkness and rain to cut CGI corners, but we’ll see about that in the sequel.) In the realm of the usually-stinky monster movies, Godzilla stands as a more polished (if not necessarily better) species. Trashy B-movies adapted to contemporary standards. Whether or not you’ll like it still depends on your tolerance for trash…

(Second viewing, On VHS, August 2000) I stand by my original review: Godzilla as made by the “American” team of Emmerich and Devlin definitely has its moments, but they’re constantly dogged by uneven pacing, a script that should be taken out and burnt, below-average acting and too-expensive CGI effects. Compare and contrast with the Japanese-made Godzilla 2000 to see a film made with a lower budget, but whose willingness to trade perfection in effects shot allows for more exciting directing and more storytelling possibilities. Still; the set-pieces here are exciting and if you’re willing to gloss over the pacing in-between Godzilla’s presence on the screen, it’s a pretty good monster movie. Vicki Lewis is absolutely delicious -not to mention underused- as a flirtatious scientist. And Jean Reno is cooler than the sum of the rest of the film.

Deep Impact (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Deep Impact</strong> (1998)

(In theaters, May 1998) I had been following the various rumors and previews about Deep Impact, so I thought I had a pretty good idea of the film’s value when I entered the theatre. I expected a maudlin tear-jerker with a cool five-minutes of special effects at the end and perhaps a good idea or two. I was right, but what I didn’t expect was that the movie actually played better than I thought. Overall, the science is also better than average and the story shows signs of maturity uncommon for disaster films. (Which is why I tend to consider Deep Impact a “drama” rather than a catastrophe movie.) On the other hand, the movie shows clear signs of having been rushed to the screens: Things are told rather than shown (the most egregious example being the missile strike against the comet), the scientific accuracy degrades by the end of the movie, the script should have been rewritten at least twice, the journalist character is annoying, at least one subplot should have been completely cut, the directing is average, things don’t always make sense (The car crash? Why?) and thus we are left with a curious impression of “okay, but could have been so much better.”

Beyond Star Trek, Lawrence M. Krauss

Pocket, 1997, 190 pages, C$29.50 hc, ISBN 0-465-00637-X

So you’re a hard-working physicist with a good reputation, a talent for glib talking and a certain tolerance for the worst excesses of media SF. What would be a good way to popularize your name and make some money? Write about the mistakes in Star Trek, of course! And if you’ve got the stamina for touring, you might as well come to half-forgotten cities everywhere in North America to give enormously entertaining conferences to promote your book!

Well, somebody has already done all those things. His name is Lawrence M. Krauss, and he’s (among other things) “Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics, Professor of Astronomy and Chairman of the Department of Physics at Case Western Reserve University.” He’s the author of four books so far, the best-known of them being The Physics of Star Trek.

I had the incredible luck of going to a lecture given by Krauss in February 1997 at the Museum of Civilization in Hull. (That’s at a stone throw’s away from the Canadian Parliament, for those among you with an imperfect knowledge of Ottawa-area geography.) Even though his talk was described as exposing the mistakes of Star Trek, it would be fairer to say that it was about a whole lot of different areas of physics, using Star Trek as a thinly related driving thread. Both The Physics of Star Trek and Beyond Star Trek also adopt this slant, with fairly efficient results.

(By the way; Krauss is an excellent speaker. Don’t miss his talk if ever he comes back in your area. He’s still the only speaker I’ve seen who was able to get an audible “oooh!” from a live audience by explaining results of a neutrino experiment.)

While The Physics of Star Trek dealt only with physics distantly related to Star Trek, Beyond Star Trek goes… well… beyond that. INDEPENDENCE DAY and “The X-Files” mostly get the Krauss treatment this time around.

From INDEPENDENCE DAY, Krauss explores the themes of alien visiting earth, getting there from here, exploring other worlds and escaping the death of the sun. That’s in addition of the obvious problems of massive spaceships orbiting earth, hovering over cities and crashing down to earth.

Starting from “The X-Files”, Krauss explores the scientific difficulties in ESP claims, artificial intelligence, quantum mechanics, time-travel paradoxes, relativity and empty-space energy. As he points out about ESP: Why can’t we detect “ESP radiations” when we can already “hear” stars a few million light-years away?

It sounds eclectic, and it is. Science is too vast to be constrained, and Krauss moves merrily from one area of physics to another. In 190 short pages, we get an interesting look at physics today, all in an accessible, frequently funny style. Beyond being simply a book for trekkies, Beyond Star Trek (and its companion volume) is also a good introduction to hard science to audiences already sensitized by media SF.

Beyond Star Trek is a bit thin to warrant being bought in hardcover, or even at full paperback price. But for an introduction (or a refresher) on the amazing current world of physics, a good amount of rational thinking and some provocative philosophy of science, you could do far worse than at least take a look at this book. It’s needless to say that it’s immeasurably better than an umpteenth X-Files inspired “I was abducted by bug-eyed monsters!” hypocritical “non-fiction” trash. And it’s a blast for nit-pickers everywhere.

(It would be fun to have a book plonking down every scientific error in every SF film ever shot. But then we’d need Gharlane of Eddore as a contributor, and very probably a CD-ROM to distribute the reams of material we’d find… Hey, now that’s an idea!)

Einstein’s Bridge, John Cramer

Avon/EOS, 1997, 310 pages, C$3.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-78831-4

A 3.99 $Can. paperback which proclaims “A Novel of Hard Science Fiction” on the cover. How could I resist?

As part of their initial launch program, Avon/EOS is releasing one title per month at a low, low (3.99$) price. This is a great marketing gimmick, especially if you’re already on the edge of buying the book. Einstein’s Bridge had been getting favorable comments (for a hard-SF novel) So it wasn’t much of a decision to buy the book on an impulsion.

Fortunately, Einstein’s Bridge would have been well-spent money, even at regular price. While saddled with the usual problems of hard-SF written by practicing scientists, it’s also a fairly good novel of pure SF.

Einstein’s Bridge initially takes place at the beginning of the twenty-first century and stars physicians working at the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Waxahachie, Texas. During a routine experiment, weird things happen, a few laws of physics are broken and evidence of extra-terrestrial life is found. Then we move on to the really interesting stuff.

Readers with at least a passing interest in Science will probably state at this point in time that there will be not such thing as a SSC in Waxahachie because the US government cancelled the project in 1994. They’re right. What does that tell you about the novel…?

Plotwise, Einstein’s Bridge fares pretty well, especially when compared to other ultra-hard-SF works, who tend to use generic plot templates as framework for their ideas. This novel has an unusual construction (caused by external factors, we gather from the introduction) and this is the source of a few unexpected plot developments. This is a novel where the ending isn’t painfully obvious from the beginning. (Even though the last fifty pages or so are more or less predictable.)

Cramer is a fairly good writer at the “top” level, but the novel’s weakest link is undoubtedly the dialogue. While we can’t know how everyone around the author talks, to the layman’s ears, the dialogue in Einstein’s Bridge seems overly burdened with unnecessary information, complex phrase construction and an absence of monosyllabic words. The worst example of this weakness comes at the very beginning of the novel, where two characters trade information that could have been directly cribbed from a travel guide. But as with most things, the forgiving reader will easily “tune out” this kind of weakness. It improves after a while, anyway. At this level, Cramer is easily better than Robert Forward.

There are also a few psychological unlikelinesses, but it seems almost unfair to judge Einstein’s Bridge on these stylistic criteria where the novel has so much more to offer. The science is seemingly exact, or at least convincingly faked. The description of the actual scientific process is one of the most realistic that I’ve read. Cramer also offers a persuasive argument for continued scientific progress, and relevant scientific commentary. The concepts and ideas are original, and plentiful: other novels will be stealing ideas from this book for years to come. The overall atmosphere is essentially SF: Die-hard fans of hard-SF (I am one, of course) will feel as if they’ve finally come home.

One negative aspect of the low price is the non-inclusion of a 50K+ political/scientific afterword. Instead, we get a short notice saying that the material is available on the Internet at the Avon/EOS site (http://www.avonbook.com/eos/). After reading the excellent afterword, I’d say it’s very, very sad that Avon/EOS had to cut this corner.

Overall, Einstein’s Bridge is an excellent hard-SF novel, easily overcoming its shortcomings by sheer imaginative power. In an age characterized by endless series of media-spin-off, new-age crap and endless fantasy trilogies, this is wonderful proof that hard-SF still has a place on the shelves of every bookseller. Cramer has the potential, given a few stylistic adjustments and a bit of luck, of becoming one of the next big things in SF. I intend to help make it happen.

The Pure Product, John Kessel

Tor, 1997, 381 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86117-6

I have always been fond of saying that if you want to discover an author, you’d be better off with a collection of his (her) short stories than a novel. Not only are the stories shorter (-duh-) but you also get a wider sample of the author’s interests and themes in a collection. Additionally, the idea level and the quality of writing is almost always higher, word-for-word, in short stories rather than full-length novels.

At least, when the author’s reasonably good.

Take, for instance, John Kessel. I’ve read his previous novel, Good News From Outer Space. It seemed to me a collage of half-finished vignettes, strung together by a threadbare plot of happy-happy alien invasion. I was not impressed.

This is not the case with The Pure Product, a pretty engaging collection of short stories from Kessel’s pen. Most of them are good, and a few of them truly attain excellence.

Generally speaking, Kessel knows how to write a story. He creates sharply-drawn characters, and his eye for detail will quickly draw you in the story. When he’s not playing around with original ideas, he can make the old ones seem fresh, or at least interesting enough that we won’t even think of stopping to read.

Kessel’s fiction should be accessible for almost every readership. He doesn’t write Hard-SF (but has a certain knowledge of it) and, at a few exceptions, doesn’t rely on the existing SF bag of tricks. (One exception is his alternate-history about Herman Melville, space-opera writer) Furthermore, most of his stories are crisply told, with the cool and assured prose of a true pro. No excessive Ellisonian-type loghareea here.

Some stories miss, some succeed. Among the better ones:

  • in “Not Responsible! Park and Lock!” Kessel recreates a society completely shaped by the presence of an infinite road. Money has been replaced by miles driven, good old fifties-style cars equal houses, robots tend to the basic jobs, and children go on schoolbuses to learn… It’s absurd, senseless and yet we can’t wait to know more. Unfortunately, the story tantalizes more than it reveals. It’s still the best concept of the book.
  • Kessel doesn’t write Hard-SF, but his “The Einstein Express” brought back very, very fond memories of a Time-Life Science book about relativity which used the basic concept of the story. That it’s a romantic comedy with a happy ending is a double-plus.
  • Showing that human pains mixed with SF can produce some of the best literature, “Hearts Do Not in Eyes Shine” explores something that seems obvious once the concept is there: What if you and your mate could selectively erase the bad memories of your relationship? What if that was an alternative to divorce? Would it solve anything? What if your memory gets erased, but you suspect that your mate’s memories remain intact…?
  • “Faustfeathers” is a deliciously anachronic play about (who else?) Faust. Enough said; it’s a blast.
  • In “The Franchise”, a very young George Bush faces off Fidel Castro in one of the most exciting World Series ever!

…and so on. “Man”, “Invaders”, “Animals”, “A Clean Escape”, “Some Like it Cold”… More than fifteen stories, and at least ten of them are good, even very good. It’s ironic, it’s well-written, it’s humane, it’s smart, it’s comic, it’s tragic, it’s accomplished.

It’s John Kessel.

Free Space, Edited by Brad Linaweaver & Edward E. Kramer

Tor, 1997, 352 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85957-0

It is the opinion of some that SF, in its purest form, is a subversive literature. At the surface, it seems only to be about space, science, extra-terrestrials, time-travel and other improbable stuff. But, what sets SF apart from the other branches of fiction is the tacit acceptance of change. Contrarily to horror (easily the most conservative genre around; ask Stephen King or remember the Laws of Horror Movies so cleverly spoofed in SCREAM.), SF usually concludes that ordinary humans won’t crack up under change, will even find a way to adapt and profit from the loss of any status-quo.

Of course, politics are almost by definition the battleground of change. Somebody has an idea and thinks everyone should do it. Other don’t think so, and organized politics ensue. Science-Fiction has always been interested in politics (see the rather heavy allegories in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and War of the Worlds) and Free Space is the latest entry in the political-SF sub-genre.

Moreover, it’s a particularly worthy entry… but your own political preferences may color this rating slightly. For Free Space is, quite obviously, a collection of (mostly) new stories revolving around the theme of freedom, power and responsibility. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this anthology endorses a philosophy reminiscent of Libertarianism. (The introduction contains this giveaway: “It seemed to me that I could get things started by contracting a number of writers who had won the Prometheus award.”…) It’s dedicated to the Heinleins, it’s got stories by William F. Buckley and L. Neil Smith and opening quotes by Thomas Jefferson -twice- and Nietzche.

Fortunately, this isn’t only straight propaganda: A fair number of interesting stories are contained between the covers of Free Space. Some of the best pieces take a lighter approach to the themes: John deChancie’s “Planet in the Balance” is a constant delight, as is Victor Koman’s “Demokratus” (the ending greatly redeeming the remainder of this heavy-handed story.)

Most of the other good stories were more serious, and gave less importance to straight political ideas. Among those, Robert J. Sawyer’s “The Hand you’re dealt” has recently been nominated for a Hugo award. It may not be the best story of the book (see below) but still entertains a lot, even despite the depressing genetic determinism it explores. “Day of Atonement” (J. Neil Schulman) is a pretty good thriller, perhaps a bit harsh on Israel. Free Space is also a book of surprises. This reviewer only knew the work of Brad Linaweaver and Dafydd ab Hugh by their collaboration on the horrendous Doom series, but both authors prove to be fairly competent authors, with ab Hugh’s story being on par with some of Sheffield’s near-future stuff. James P. Hogan also astonishes, with a story that’s thematically and stylistically beyond most of what he’s written before. (“Madam Butterfly” also contains one of the book’s most memorable scene, the culmination of a series of near-chaotic events.) Finally, the anthologists made an unusual choice by selecting a meta-story by John Barnes (“Between Shepherds and Kings”) to close the book. It’s not that great a story, but (simultaneously) makes both important points that A> These are only Science-Fiction stories and B> Talking about grand-scale freedom is worthless if you can’t be free yourself.

But beyond that, the most impressive story if the volume is a discovery; “The Performance of a Lifetime” (Arthur Byron Cover) breaks a lot of storytelling rules, but still emerges as a winner. A tale of large-scale crime, told in a perfectly controlled tone. It’s hilarious and tragic at the same time. And the conclusion is a doozy. Truly a memorable story.

Free Space is not without flaws (for instance, a fair number of stories are empty exercises of style and rhetoric over narrative drive… and if there’s a common universe behind each of these stories, it’s so tenuously followed that it might as well be forgotten.) but it certainly represents a vigorous attempt to bring back an important political dialogue in today’s SF. You will certainly not agree with it -this reviewer often didn’t- but at least you will react to the stories. Free Space is not Empty Stuff.

Circuit of Heaven, Dennis Danvers

Avon/EOS, 1998, 373 pages, C$19.00 hc, ISBN 0-380-97447-9

The first few months of a new SF imprint are always exciting, even when it’s really a repackaging of an existing one (in this case, Avonova becoming Avon/EOS, a considerably less catchy moniker) In this case, it’s been even more interesting than usual since the fine folks at Avon/EOS are intent on trying out several new things to make their new imprint stand out.

For instance, there’s their insistence to use only design elements on their covers. What this means is that you’ll never see a Michael Whelan illustration on an Avon/EOS book: Figurative illustrations are out and abstract designs are in. I like cover illustrations, so I don’t like this. Time will tell. Never say never… We’ll see in two or three years about the Whelan cover.

The other interesting marketing strategy is that once a month, Avon/EOS selects one of their hardcover publication and shrink it down. The result is a physical object that’s slightly bigger than a paperback, but with hard covers. It’s pretty ugly and doesn’t look very serious, but it sells for nineteen Canadian dollars. Not bad.

Such is the case with Dennis Danver’s Circuit of Heaven. Ugly format, ugly design on the cover. But as the novel reminds us, appearances can be deceiving. Let’s take a look inside.

The novel begins nicely enough, with a first chapter that’s straight exposition: So there’s a guy who perfected personality upload into computers, and virtual reality’s so powerful that almost everyone on Earth has chose to turn themselves virtual. The Pentagon has been converted to house these twelve billion (!) personalities. So far, so very very interesting.

At this point, five pages into the novel, we might expect to be set for a fascinating exploration of the human spirit when the body becomes irrelevant. What can twelve billion personalities do together? What might be the repercussions of immortality and constant well-being on relationships? Can you combine personalities or split them off?

Mistake.

This novel remains to be written. Instead, we get a sappy romance between what is initially a rebellious “real” guy and a troubled virtual girl. I used “sappy” in the nicest possible way: As romances go, this one’s fair enough that I didn’t feel too cheated by the lack of willingness of the novel to explore its own concepts deeper than as background props.

Fortunately, this romance-for-the-virtual-nineties is written well enough, and with enough twists of the sub-plot to entertain most readers. Not all of it is meaningful (a competent editor could have removed at least fifty pages, perhaps a hundred.) but it holds together fairly solidly. Fortunately, characters are okay (Although they -and other things- bear an uncanny resemblance to this year’s movie DARK CITY), as is the prose style.

Thematically, it’s an unusual work in that is casually expects everyone to be all fudgy-happy to get virtual. I disagree, but then again that’s just me. Still, the back-cover blurb reads like a Wired slogan: “The Body is Baggage. The Soul is expendable. The Future is Virtual.”

No fireworks, no Hugo awards for Danvers. But Circuit of Heaven is good enough to make you forget the unusual format it’s printed upon. Definitely not your run-of-the-mill SF, this romantically-flavored novel should appeal to anyone looking for something slightly different.

Despite my misgivings related to some aspects of Avon/EOS’s initiatives, I can only applaud their decision to take chances with newer, less familiar authors. Danvers is reportedly working on a semi-sequel to Circuit of Heaven. With hope, this one’ll examine the implications of its framework. Until then, I’d recommend keeping an eye on the Avon/EOS line.

The Cobweb, Stephen Bury

Bantam, 1997, 384 pages, C$17.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-37828-7

The first thing you won’t notice anywhere on the paperback cover of Stephen Bury’s The Cobweb is any association of Bury with young SF superstar Neal Stephenson. (It is well known that Stephen Bury is the pseudonym that Stephenson uses when collaborating with his uncle.) Unlike Bury’s first novel, Interface, which loudly advertised “co-written by NEAL STEPHENSON”, The Cobweb is promoted as being “A frightening and savagely witty new thriller from the author of Interface

Whatever Bantam’s intentions were, it is clear that The Cobweb is not Interface and at the same time a novel very much in the style of the previous novel. In short, this isn’t Stephenson: this is Bury.

The Cobweb is a thriller mostly taking place in the last few months of 1990 in a small town somewhere in Iowa. Deputy sheriff Clyde Banks has a few problems: He’s trying to be elected sheriff, his wife is gone to war in the Gulf and mysterious crimes are happening in his town, with prime suspects being foreign students studying at the local university…

It’s always a risk to write a near-past thriller. Events have to be restrained, characters can’t do things that would clash with our perception of history. In other words, we already know how the story will end, at least in broad and general terms. Despite this, an impressive amount of very good novels (notably Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal and The Fist of God) have successfully bridged this difficulty. The Cobweb joins their ranks.

Most of the novel is centered either on Clyde Banks, or on a humble Washington CIA analyst named Betty Vandeventer. Their personal struggles become more fascinating than the bigger events surrounding them. The novel is a page-turner, and Bury’s gift for characterization is evident.

The prose is also delicious, a mix of good storytelling with a wealth of details. We come out of the novel feeling as if we know more about the world that we did before. Bury’s take on the development of the Gulf War is especially interesting, exposing plausible links and consequences that explain a lot. The co-authors have a firm grasp on political, economic and scientific concepts, and this knowledge goes a long way in assuring the aura of believability essential for any thriller. They manage to make bureaucratic infighting exciting, which is an achievement in itself.

Bury’s fascination for details, already visible in Interface, makes The Cobweb worth its price in paperback: This is a curiously satisfying thriller, unlike other books in the genre which can be read in a flash and feel as insubstantial as hot air.

This isn’t Interface, but it’s as good. Whatever Bury wishes to write next, his readers are assured of a very good read.

The Science of JURASSIC PARK and THE LOST WORLD, Rob DeSalle & David Lindley

Basic Books, 1997, 194 pages, C$25.50 tpb, ISBN 0-465-07379-4

Since JURASSIC PARK and THE LOST WORLD were two immensely popular SF movies seen by million of people worldwide, it was only natural that at least one unauthorized non-fiction book would come out of this success. The Science of JURASSIC PARK and THE LOST WORLD is this book.

Those looking for snide references to acting blunders by Jeff Goldblum et al. will be severely disappointed, though: this isn’t as much a shot-by-shot discussion of the movies as a meticulous description of the problems facing potential Jurassic Park scientists. The subtitle “How to build a dinosaur” is a far better description of the book’s content.

Since the two authors are scientists and not movie buffs, you get a book much more centered on science than filmmaking. Even then, much of Science is spent discussing the details provided in the books, rather than in the movies. (The two authors probably hadn’t even seen the movie version of The Lost World at the time of the publication of the book) Furthermore, it’s a book focused on “how can we make this happen” rather than “this is where they screwed up.”

The book is divided in nine big questions, each covering a different problem to be conquered before T-Rexes can stomp the ground again. The most salient are finding dinosaur DNA, extracting it, reconstructing it, turning the DNA into embryos, raising these embryos and compensating for the lack of a “natural” environment.

One side-effect of the book might be to give to the reader a glimpse in the infinitely complicated mechanisms of life. If DNA is the blueprint of life, it’s not the finished construction. And what if the plans are in multiple copies, mixed-up, even shredded?

Each step of the way is meticulously detailed—up to a point where it will seem very unlikely to the reader that dinosaur construction is even possible. The two authors of Science know their stuff, and it show, perhaps even a bit too much when they delve into the strange jargon of biologists.

But even then, the book remains mildly interesting. It’s by no mean gripping, but it challenges normal mental curiosity. The road to a living, breathing, people-eating dinosaur now seems arduous, but not impossible. While an opportunistic book cashing in a faddish trend, Science is primarily a useful vulgarization of an interesting subject. Somehow, it is likely that if ever a third Jurassic Park book is written, Science will be one of Crichton’s reference books.

Lost In Space (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Lost In Space</strong> (1998)

(In theaters, April 1998) I expected the worst, and got something not entirely unenjoyable. I never watched the original series, so I could appreciate the new movie on its own terms. And the terms are similar to last year’s The Fifth Element: Unpretentious entertainment for the whole family, with illogical actions scenes that look pretty good, science-fiction concepts badly handled, loud sounds and annoying sidekicks (in this case, an insufferably bad monkeoid named “Blarp”, but should be pronounced “Barf!”) The acting’s okay, the special effects are mostly great and the production design is simply fabulous. Dialogue, plot and coherence were truly Lost in Writer’s Mind, although there are a lot of missed opportunities that were nicely introduced in the first hour. Nevertheless, it’s one entertaining ride. Not Bad, one might say.

Passion Play, Sean Stewart

Tesseracts, 1992, 231 pages, C$?.?? mmpb, ISBN 0-88878-314-0

For a writer, one good way to ensure interest from the reader is to mix widely disparate elements in a single work. Some of the time, the result is a mish-mash of incongruous concepts. Most of the time, it seems like a fairly obvious gimmick (as Jurassic Park‘s mix of genetic engineering and chaos theory) Once in a while, though, the themes mesh well together and the result is often a classic.

In the field of Canadian Science-Fiction, Passion Play (Aurora and Edgar Award, 1992) is considered a minor classic and after reading it it’s easy to see why. Basically, it’s an endearing mix of science-fiction and crime story: the plot is about an investigator asked to solve the death of an actor.

So far, so accessible. Then the complications begin.

First, the setting. We’re a few years in the future, in an America dominated by a religious leadership (The Redemption Presidency, in a tone slightly similar to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale —another great Canadian SF novel.) The atmosphere is restrictive, oppressive and retrograde. Women’s right are in decline -if not almost gone-, as are most progressive ideas. Vigilantism is encouraged; the novel begins as a small mob kills a women for adultery—the leader of the mob being the husband.

Enters the protagonist; Diane Fletcher, a woman in a man’s world. Her precious talent: She can see and feel the emotions of others. This makes her useful to the official police force, who subcontracts a few cases to her. Fletcher is one of this novel’s biggest assets: Her narration is almost always impeccable, and her personality is fully developed. It is fortunate that the tale is told by her voice.

The victim of the crime isn’t ordinary either: Jonathan Mask is, at the beginning of the novel, the most famous actor—sorry, “communicator”—in America. And he’s also very, very dead, electrocuted inside his hi-tech suit he was wearing for his new teleplay. It might be an accident—but since this is a crime story, we can bet that it’s not.

Fortunately, Steward knows how to tell a tale. It gets muddled in the end (like most whodunits) and the end result is too dark to be cheered, but Passion Play is an impressive debut by the author who would later write the engrossing (but frustrating) Resurrection Man. Passion Play is slightly more enjoyable although the ending is unnecessarily grim. Too bad; this novel could have used an optimistic finale.

Still, this 1991 Tesseract book is well-worth tacking down. Stylish yet easy to read, complex but captivating, let’s hope that our future has a few more authors like Sean Stewart and books like Passion Play.

Hudson Hawk (1991)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Hudson Hawk</strong> (1991)

(Third viewing, On TV, April 1998) Lord knows why, I’ve got a soft spot for this movie, widely known as one of the biggest bombs in the history of cinema. This tale of one singing cat-burglar is very uneven, intermittently clever and suffers from a lacklustre first ten minutes before it switches in high gear, but it also sports Bruce Willis in a fairly good character, Andie MacDowell (what more is there to say?) and some of the weirdest, most over-the-top comedy you’ve ever, ever seen. (“There aren’t many challenges left when you’ve made your first billion at nineteen. So I set upon my next goal: Global Domination!” [The shareholders applaud]) I can see why it’s not for a general audience and I’d sure would have liked to see another (tighter, funnier) draft of the script. But this movie left me in stitches each time I’ve seen it (thrice, two of them in butchered French translation) so… see it at least once, and don’t expect anything.

The Big Hit (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Big Hit</strong> (1998)

(In theaters, April 1998) This is another of those movie that are a lot of fun providing that you don’t expect them to make a lot of sense. In this case, it’s a violent comedy in the tradition of Pulp Fiction, Hexed and Grosse Pointe Blank mixed with the stylistic excesses of The Chase, The Rock and/or a bunch of Hong Kong movies. The characters are at least unusual, and the action sequences (all five of them) are fairly well executed. The movie tries too hard to be funny, and regrettably indulges in a lot of despicable stereotyping but it’s okay if you’re in the mood for this kind of thing. Acting is also above average for this kind of movie, with special kudos going to Mark Wahlberg, Avery Brooks and newcomer China Chow (may she have a long and successful career: we could certainly benefit from seeing more of her around!) Very good movie to see with a bunch of MST3K-like friends.